Category Archives: Attachment


Three months in? Five Ways to get to Four

There is a classic story amongst dating adults. It was depicted in 9 ½ Weeks, with a little pizazz and lot of soft-core bondage. It is the story of the rapid rise and fall of the steamy adult relationship. It starts with a bang and fizzles out with one last confusing text.


Oh my god! I haven’t seen you in forever! I have to tell you about Josh. Holy shit, he is the best. No seriously, I think he’s the one. I mean, it’s just this feeling I get when I’m around him. It’s totally perfect. And you’ll never believe this. Our mothers have the same name. Seriously, and get this. He got married on the same date as my birthday. How weird is that! And wait for it… it is literally the best sex of my life!!


No… yeah, no, I mean it is going really well. We went to a really good concert last night. I met his kids last weekend; that was weird. A little reality check but I really, really like him. He lives in Yarmouth and wants to stay there. There is no way in hell I am moving out of Portland. But it’s way too early to think about all that, so no biggie.


I do, I really enjoy our time together. I don’t quite get why I need to hear about his ex so much but whatever.   I definitely don’t want to deal with another crazy ex. Get this, he left his toothbrush at my house. It just sits there staring at me in the morning. What’s up with that? What? No, definitely, the sex is still pretty good.


We’re on a break, I mean, just a short one. We really like each other and really want this to work. It was just feeling like too much work. Should it be that much work? He was weirdly defensive the other day and I still don’t know what he was mad about. I felt like I was right back in my last relationship! I might have to get out of this.


We broke up. No, this time for good. I miss him, but I love being alone.

48 hours later

Well, we’re trying it again. No really, I’m feeling good about it. We had a really good talk. Well, and a little sex too. He said everything I was waiting to hear. I’m really excited that we’re back.


Oh, right, we broke up a week ago. I meant to tell you. I mean, we tried as hard as we could but it just wasn’t working. I loved that first month we spent together. We just couldn’t get back there.

What’s up with that?

Month 3 is when the mask we wear is no longer comfortable and starts to break off. We have an innate knowledge that to feel truly safe in a relationship we must be known and be vulnerable. In trying to reach that place of safety, we have to go through the field of fear. Fear pushes us back to our core emotional patterns learned oh so long ago. Automatic pilot kicks in. If we are a runner, this is when we run. If we are a fighter, this is when we fight. So how do we get through the field, with the relationship, and ourselves, intact?

1. Learn your patterns.

Pay attention to yourself. What do you do when you feel backed against a wall? And, what puts you there? Is it the mere mention of commitment or a vacation together that gives you cold sweats?   Does talk of wanting to merge families put you on edge? And how do you react when you feel uncomfortable: do you turn off emotionally, back away from the relationship physically, return to former girlfriends, feel anxious, and/or begin to cling and text overly long sentiments? Does jealousy or anger creep in?

2. Learn to be vulnerable.

Your patterns are your defense. They keep you from having to feel real feelings, which emanate from that sense of vulnerability. Step 1 to being vulnerable is believing in yourself and understanding that we all, every single one of us, have (many!) beautiful imperfections. Being vulnerable takes an act of courage. It is believing in yourself, not clinging to past stories, past beliefs or things past partners said about you. Start by taking a breath and repeating “I’m okay, no, not just okay, but good. I’m good”.

3. Know that discomfort is a good thing.

You may have heard the suggestion to “lean into your discomfort”. Leaning in is a signal that you are open to doing things differently this time, that you know that learning new emotional patterns takes work. When you feel uncomfortable, it is a signal to your brain that you are on the precipice of learning something new. When you feel the discomfort in your body, stop, breathe, and stay with that discomfort. Do something differently. Instead of turning away from the person in front of you, turn towards her and say, out loud, “Wow, I am glad we got to this point. I feel uncomfortable. My usual tendency would be to back away from this relationship and start acting weird, but I am choosing not to. I am happy to be here with you.”

4. Stop trying to get back to the first month.

A long term relationship has a different feel to it than the early, dopamine-laden days of that first month. The trick to the longer term relationship is to aspire to feelings of attachment rather than the quick hit of cocaine (cocaine has the same impact on the brain that touch, love, and sex have during that first month). Attachment, the feeling in a longer term relationship, feels like a comfortable blanket wrapping around you while you sit in front of a fire with your favorite book. You don’t have to give up the quick rush when you are striving for a longer relationship. Picture sex on the couch before you grab your book!  But know that aspiring only for the quick rush will not result in sustained joy or a sustainable relationship.

5. Or just break up.

Because you are showing your true self around the three month mark, you should recognize the other person is too. You are getting new insight into what she is like, how she deals with conflict, and how she feels about herself. This is an ideal time to step back, ask lots of questions of the other person, and assess the relationship with a calm, objective eye. It is always possible that the person in front of you is not a good match. Breaking up and trying again with someone else is always an option. If you decide you want to stay in the relationship, take a breath, and get ready for the ride.


Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at or 207-200-3970.  More information here.


4 Ways To Be: What we can do to foster attachment in our relationships

The key to a long term relationship is being attached enough to weather all the rough waters that inevitably churn during a relationship. Researchers[1] in neuroscience have determined there are three different “emotion-motivation” systems that are involved in lust, romantic love and attachment. While “lust” encourages us to sleep with basically anyone and everyone, and “romantic love” calms us down a bit and encourages us to focus on finding a specific, suitable person to have babies with, attachment is the way in which we can actually stay with someone long enough to “complete species-specific parental duties” (Seriously, they say that. Researchers are super fun and funny!)

For the first couple months of a relationship, there are awesome-feeling neurotransmitters coursing through your brain helping you to stay with and explore your new relationship. These neurotransmitters actually allow you to believe your mate is unique in this world as they focus your attention on all the positive characteristics while ignoring potential red flags. (I will get all technical in a future article on what is really happening in your brain.) In addition to the help your brain is providing, there are other things you can intentionally do to assist your new partnership to thrive and it all has to do with attachment.

We attach to others when we feel safe. When we feel safe, we can be vulnerable and in those tender, together moments of closeness we start to attach. It was pretty much the same thing way back when with your parents. We attached to our parents when they responded to us in ways that made us feel safe and loved.   The more they explained the rules to us, provided guidance, helped us negotiate the world, hugged us, listened to us and picked us up when we fell down, the more we attached securely to them. As an adult, we can encourage attachment to other adults by creating a safe, loving, predictable environment.

How we make others feel safe enough to attach.

1. Be explicit about the rules of the game.

Even though kids, and many adults, seem to resist rules, we all actually perform better and feel better when we understand what is expected of us and know how we should be behaving. We need to communicate the rules of the relationship. Maybe this relates to whether you believe in dating multiple people at the same time or how often you like to communicate.  Maybe this relates to how you celebrate holidays or whether you like to go out or eat in. It is all good, as long as you communicate the rules to your partner explicitly.

2. Be consistent.

Being able to anticipate what is going to happen next makes all of us feel calmer. In a relationship, this plays out in consistency in communication and actions. For instance, if you normally text when you are on your way to her house, do so consistently so she knows when you will be showing. If you tend to show up 5 minutes late to everything, no need to be perfect, just tell your partner so they know what to expect.   Consistency also means being there for your partner when they need you, essentially being trustworthy and dependable. When something bad happens, you want to know someone has your back.

Note: If you have problems being consistent (which is not unusual), examine why? Does being consistent make you feel locked in or hampered in your movements? Or do you simply have a distractible personality and don’t always remember. Explain to your partner your tendencies and ask your partner what types of consistency are important to him or her.

3. Be empathic (not sympathetic).

This is key to making your partner feel heard (and that feeling of being heard and understood is what strengthens the attachment between two people). Empathy is the ability to listen and see a situation from another’s perspective. Empathy involves simply listening and hearing your partner. It does not involve fixing your partner (“oh, no worries, just do this”) or diminishing their concerns (“at least… you have your health”).  It doesn’t involve talking at all. The key to listening is not to talk. Try it! You will make your partner feel great and you may learn a thing or two.

4. Be kind.

We all thrive on kind words and gestures. We all suffer too little kindness in this world. Take a moment and compliment your partner, or just listen to them talk about their day, or give them a hug.

Questions to Ask Yourself and Your Partner

The goal is to be explicit with your partner about the rules so that the relationship feels consistent and predictable.  Ask these questions:

1. How do you prefer to communicate? By phone, by text, by email? How often? What type of communication makes you uncomfortable?

2. How much time do you like to spend with someone you are seeing? How much alone time do you prefer?

3. Are you affectionate? How do you feel about PDA (public displays of affection)?

4. What kinds of gifts do you really appreciate?

5. What makes you feel loved? What can I do to make sure you feel safe and loved?

6. Are there points in a relationship when you typically start feeling uncomfortable? What happens? What should I expect? Is there anything I can do to make your more comfortable?

Get to know yourself, get to know your partner and create a safe environment to the best of your ability to let love and attachment thrive.


Erin Oldham has a Ph.D. in psychology and has spent more than 20 years researching how children and adults for secure attachments and healthy relationships. She offers engaging workshops to help people learn more about themselves as well as strengthen their current and future relationships. She is a relationship coach and divorce consultant. Contact her at for more information. Or check out for the workshop schedule.


[1] Defining the brain systems of lust, romantic attraction and attachment. (2002). Fisher, H.E., Aron, A., Mashek, D, Li, H & Brown, L.L. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31(5), 413-419.


Three Ways Your Parents Are Still Messing With You

Three ways your parents are still affecting your relationships: Attachment and Relationships.

We are all playing a game. A game we learned in childhood. The rules were given to us by our parents, not always written down or in words but through their actions. They taught us what was safe and what wasn’t. Their actions indicated to us when and whether we mattered, how and how loud to yell to get our needs met. Sometimes their inactions spoke even louder to us. And now, we continue to play the game each and every day. But here is the thing. You now have the power to change the rules, to see how your actions and inactions affect those around you. Our parents and early environment are absolutely the largest influences on our behavior and relationships today, but we are in charge now.

Three ways your parents are currently affecting your relationships

1. How you communicate…

Do you talk around an issue or straight to an issue? Do you shut down in a challenging conversation?  Do you add in subtle insults in your conversations?  Is your tone of voice supportive, aggressive, empathic or condescending? Do you like small talk or want to dive straight into religion and politics?

2. Whether you like to be touched…

Do you walk right up and hug someone or take a step back and push your firm hand shake out in front of you? Do you feel comfortable with public displays of affection? Do you think sex is a critical part of a relationship or the side game?

3. How you fight…

Do you clam up when you are upset? Or do you lean in and lay out an impenetrable argument? Do you raise your voice or walk away? Do you stonewall and pretend your partner doesn’t exist? Or do you take some time to calm down and then sit down to listen to your partner?

In the answers to all of these questions, we can see remnants of our parents. Your parents taught you key lessons that significantly affect your current romantic and non-romantic relationships

You were trained during your childhood to know…

1. What was safe and what wasn’t. Certain situations or environments may raise your blood pressure. You may fear or revel walking into a room of party-goers. My parents used to throw regular parties so my acclimation in that environment left me with skills to walk to a room of semi-strangers. Maybe you were raised in a suburb and your grandparents talked about how dangerous the city was, leaving you with a deeply seeded discomfort when walking between skyscrapers.

2. Who was safe and who wasn’t. Your parents likely communicated this to you in subtle and not so subtle ways. Your dad may have told you not to talk to strangers or your mom may have grabbed your arm and hurried her steps when she saw men on the sidewalk she perceived to be dangerous. On a recent walk with a friend of mine, I felt him tightened and step up his pace when we passed a group of homeless men on the sidewalk, likely a leftover reaction taught to him by another.

3. How to act to get your needs met. What was the most effective way to communicate your needs to your parents, regardless of whether they actually listened? I found stealing $300 worth of alcohol from my parents “alcohol closet” (who has an alcohol closet and doesn’t expect a teen to take some!) the most effective way to get my parents to notice I was starting to hang with a crowd that was getting me in trouble in 8th grade. You may have slammed the door to your bedroom and put on loud music as a way to communicate that someone at school was bullying you. One of my sons will quietly mope up the stairs with his head down, a clear indication he wants me to follow and ask him what he needs. Through our parents response to us, they taught us what works and what doesn’t to get our needs met.

We play out our childhood again and again. We go towards what is comfortable and familiar. Especially in times of duress, we fall back into our childhood patterns. Have you noticed how you act different with different people? Some people bring out the best in us and some bring out the worst! It is only through examining our lives and gaining an awareness of the patterns we learned oh so long ago that we have a chance of breaking out into more adaptive and healthier behaviors. My observations, which research backs up, is that one can move from insecure attachment behaviors to secure attachment behaviors through introspective, awareness and refinement (and by choosing partners that don’t replicate unhealthy situations).

Four basic profiles of adult attachment

Secure attachment. Secure attachments in adulthood emanate from secure attachments in childhood (or from lots of introspection and therapy). Typically, your parents paid attention to you, noticed when you were trying to communicate, nurtured you and also let you develop your independence. Your parents were the secure base from which you explored the world. You knew they would be there when you didn’t do well on the SAT, broke up with your girlfriend or when you came back on break from college.

Preoccupied (anxious) attachment. Adults with an adult profile of a preoccupied attachment often grew up with an ambivalent/anxious attachment with their parent(s). As adults, they are self-critical and insecure. They engage in behaviors to elicit approval and reassurance from others. Even when they get what they are seeking, it does nothing to relieve their self-doubt or that internal critical voice. These adults fear being rejected which translates into a lack of trust in their partner as well as anxiety in many situations. They may act clingy and overly dependent on their partner. They may seek a romanticized version of love and may seek to be rescued by love. Their insecurity leaves them turned against themselves and their partner and emotionally desperate in relationships. In clinging to their partner to seek a sense of safety, they tend to push their partner away, which reinforces their belief of themselves as unworthy and their belief that they were justified in not trusting their partner.

Dismissive attachment. A dismissive attachment in adulthood likely comes from an avoidance attachment in childhood. Adults with this profile avoid conflict, avoid emotion and may avoid relationships all together. They may be more comfortable being alone. When conflicts arise, they distance themselves and remain emotionally removed, having very little reaction. They may come off as self-absorbed or not caring.

Fearful avoidant attachment.  These adults may have grown up with disorganized attachments. In childhood, an adaptive pattern was detaching in times of trauma, and thus, in adulthood they may still detach from their own feelings and from others. However, they also seek relationships (and love) but their behaviors are characterized by ambivalence. They want and desire relationships until the emotional closeness is too much. Once people get too close, there is a fear of being hurt. So the person who is seen as necessary for safety is the same person that is too frightening to get close to. They may relive some of their old trauma in their present relationships. They tend to experience emotional ups and downs and they may find themselves in dramatic relationships. They may fear abandonment and also struggle with being intimate. They may cling to their partner when they feel rejected and then feel trapped when they are too close. There is little coherent sense of self or a clear, consistent connection with others.

Behavior You May See In People With a…

Secure Attachment: Comfortable in their own skin. Comfortable with intimacy and independence. Pursues one’s own passions and does activities with their partner. Communicates well. Empathic. Trusting. Preoccupied/Anxiously Attachment: Seeks approval and responsiveness. Seek high level of intimacy. Overly dependent. Lack of Trust. Clingy. Needy. Romanticizes love and relationships. Anxious. Insecure. Impulsive.
Dismissive Attachment: Independent. Emotionally unavailable. Suppress Feelings. Self-absorbed. (Appears) uncaring. Critical. Intolerant. Fearful/Avoidant Attachment: Ambivalent about relationships. Emotionally labile. Insensitive. Seek less intimacy. Suppress feelings. Fearful of abandonment. Lack of Trust. Clingy.

 Attachment Related Questions to Ask Yourself

Get curious about yourself. Start asking yourself questions. Reflect on your last relationship or your current one.

  • Do you push or pull when in a relationship?
  • Do you withhold your love? When?
  • Do you trust your partner? What raises feelings of mistrust?
  • Do you trust yourself? Why or why not?
  • How do you feel when someone expresses their love to you? What does your internal voice say when someone gives you a complement?
  • At what point do you start backing away from a relationship?
  • What do you over-react to?
  • When do you feel smothered? When do you smother others?

Two Major Take Away Messages

1. We instinctively go towards what is known or comfortable. Sometimes this is not a good thing. If you are hitting barriers or issues in your relationships, your best bet is to recognize your patterns and start creating new patterns.

2. We can change our attachment patterns. We, as adults, have the power to learn to read our environments differently, communicate our needs and make changes in how we behave.  We can also start making good choices in terms of our partners.  We can say no to people who bring out the worst in us and yes to those who bring out the best.

We all have issues. Every single one of us. The best we can do is be aware of our issues, communicate them to our partner and even start to make impactful changes. Come to the “Attachment in Relationships” workshop on Wednesday, January 21st 2015 from 6:30 to 8:30pm to learn to do just that. Register at


Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at or 207-200-3970.  More information here.